Like Starbucks, do you have an ethical pitch for your brand?


A few years ago, Barb Stegemann came up with an idea to wean farmers in Afghanistan away from cultivating poppy, which is made into heroin. If they would grow orange blossom instead, she would buy the oil extracted from it and produce perfume back home in Canada.

The Afghan Orange Blossom perfume has caught on now, with many women opting to join this olfactory war on Afghanistan's drug trade. Since then, Stegemann has come up with more such perfumes, including Middle East Peace, which is a blend of Israeli grapefruit oil with Iranian lemon and basil. She calls it an ethical business that appeals to ethical buyers.

Starbucks, which recently made an entry into Bangalore, claims that it buys more 'fair trade' coffee beans than any other company. By 'fair trade' they mean a better price for bean growers, more humane work conditions, greener coffee growing practices and the like. "It's not just what you're buying, it's what you're buying into" is how they pitch their 'coffee ethics'.

Movie buffs would have become familiar with another version of this concept in the film Blood Diamond. It portrayed a campaign against diamonds mined in parts of Africa which were funding rebels and their atrocities. In 1998, the United Nations Security Council banned the sale of diamonds from Angola. And today, a diamond can only sparkle if it comes from a conflict-free zone, because it relieves buyers from the burden of indirectly contributing to terror.

Products like organic food, electric cars and solar gadgets - as well as services that claim to leave a smaller carbon footprint - make a similar appeal to consumers who would favour a brand or even pay extra if it makes them feel they're doing their bit for the environment. Alleviating social inequity is another construct on this - such as in the reforms-with-a-human-face slogan of India's UPA government.

Not everyone buys into this, of course. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek finds it hypocritical for capitalists to be charitable with one hand while perpetuating inequality with the other. As Zizek puts it: "The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves - and so prevented the core of the system from being realised by those who suffered from it."

Zizek is a critic of the entire evil capitalist system which he feels can never do any social good. But for many others, in the absence of a better economic system, they would rather do some good within its constraints, than nothing at all. The growing tribe of 'ethical' buyers and sellers is proof that consumers are gradually getting more conscientious - even if they may still be sceptical about exaggerated claims on fair trade or benefits to the environment. Something is better than nothing is their credo, and they feel good about making a purchase that also makes the world a better place in some small way.

This is something to be kept in mind for your brand, whatever it may be. If any social or environmental benefit can be built into it, that's a worthy as well as profitable value-add. And it needs to be made explicit to the 'conscientious consumer' too. Just as explicitly as Starbucks does it. So what will it be - an ethical cappuccino or an unethical latte?


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